Gemba Symbolizer: Element #12 of the Kanban

Jim BensonExpert, PrimersLeave a Comment

In Lean the “Gemba” is where everything happens. It’s the crime scene, the shop floor, ground zero. In manufacturing, the Gemba is a physical location, filled with gear, that you can walk along and evaluate for operational productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. This is called a “Gemba Walk.”

The Gemba is also synonymous with the people who work there. So, if you are a manager and you notice something is amiss, you can “Go to the Gemba” and ask the people there what they think. The Gemba will then help you find a solution tempered with both management and line-worker sensibilities.

In knowledge work, however, we have no Gemba. If I go do a Gemba Walk, I will walk around a bunch of cubes and everyone will look like Dilbert. By and large, in knowledge work, there is simply no physical representation of the work. I would, and management consultants often do, have to rely on asking everyone “What do you do, how do you to it, where are things good, where are things bad, etc.”

And, everyone involved in the day to day work will tell me their views, which are all slightly or not-so-slightly different. Then I’d have to make sense of it all and then give the client some sort of report that is a mix of spot-on-brilliance derived through finding the common wisdom in what I heard and cumulative error by chasing threads of little value.

And why was I hired? Because neither the managers nor the line-workers knew what was really going on in the first place. They all “knew” – meaning they believed their own interpretations – but no one seemed to realize that all the interpretations were different because they were all ill informed.

So the kanban shows us all this. It shows us what the team is doing, the steps they take to do it, where things are breaking down, where people are working together, what options are coming up, and so on.

By now, at Element 12, we know all this.

The kanban, then, becomes a symbolic Gemba. It gives everyone a physical artifact, much like the assembly line, for everyone to go to, have conversations, and engage. We don’t fight over interpretations, we merely suggest new ones. And we suggest the new ones in context – standing in front of the board and saying things like, “This outsourcing partner seems to be slowing us down – can we get them more information up front that could help them process our work faster?” or “If we moved some of the graphic designers to the front of the project, we could work with better designs throughout product development.”

We can do Gemba Walks of our teams and others by simply walking the board.

This is #12 in a 13 part series on the elements of kanban. Read them all!

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Jim BensonGemba Symbolizer: Element #12 of the Kanban

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